Monday, January 17, 2005

"A Government of Laws, Not Men"

I originally wanted to write on something else, but The Tribune's tepid Gonzales editorial got me started. Maybe it got edited down--there's no mention of Gonzales's first name, which makes me suspect that some stuff at the beginning got cut, which could have affected the meaning, but the part that set me off was at the end. "The concern is," indeed.

The newspaper version of my column is here; you can read the original Tribune editorial here. If you have a minute, compare my paper's namby-pamby passive voice harrumphing to that of The Washington Post. It's come to this pretty pass, where we congratulate people because they go out on a limb and oppose torture. Wow. And if the defense is that we only do a few things that constitute torture, while the terrorists are beheading people--I can only wait for the attack that you lack patriotism because you're against beheading people if that's what it takes to defend liberty. Hey, if Jack could defeat the terrorists on 24 by beheading a couple, suddenly you're going to get qualms at that point? Isn't that a little late in this particular game?

East Valley Tribune, Jan. 16, 2005

Naively, I used to think our country was “a government of laws, not men.” But in a remarkable editorial last week, The Tribune disagreed.

Last Tuesday, a Tribune editorial entitled “Reassurances and reservations” reviewed the confirmation hearing testimony of Alberto Gonzales, President Bush’s nominee for Attorney General. The Tribune saluted Gonzales because he, in the editorial’s words, “repudiated” memos written under his auspices as White House counsel which seemed to condone both torture and disregard of the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.

Gonzales offered words: “Contrary to reports, I consider the Geneva Conventions neither obsolete nor quaint.” He also said that he would “ensure that the Department of Justice aggressively pursues those responsible for such abhorrent actions.” The Tribune breathed a huge sigh of relief, saying that senators “couldn’t ask for more concrete commitments.”

After all, everybody knows that everybody in the Bush administration, from the president on down, never says anything without meaning it and always lives up to their promises. Their word is their bond. They never exaggerate. They always underpromise and overperform. You just can’t get “more concrete commitments” than from the Bush administration. Glad we got that one settled, the very week that the Iraq Survey Group abandoned the forlorn snipe hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

From there, the editorial really got woozy. Maybe Gonzales made clear that he personally doesn’t approve of torture. But as The Tribune noted, “a key principle remains unaddressed: Does the president have the power to ignore U.S. laws and international treaties against torture? Does he have the power to order the torture of detainees?” And another question, from the Jose Padilla case: Is it true that “the president has the power to imprison without charge” American citizens indefinitely?

According to the editorial, Gonzales called the torture question “moot” because Bush personally opposes torture. The government lawyers in the Padilla case said the other question was moot because Bush wouldn’t order roundups of other American citizens.

The editorial’s big conclusion: “Clearly the administration would like to reserve those powers for the president. The concern is that while Bush might not abuse such powers, another president might.”

Well, there you have it. This constitution thing, this business about American law and values and international norms -- break out the passive voice, boys, because that’s for other presidents, not this one. We don’t worry because, well, they’re so superfluous when the president is George W. Bush. After all, the guy who took us to war against Iraq’s WMD, who said that his tax cuts were justified by the huge guaranteed budget surpluses, who says that Social Security won’t be able to pay anything in 15 years -- well, we’re just supposed to trust him. He “might not abuse such powers.” Such a relief!

Of course, every defense by the Bush administration since the Abu Ghraib photos first appeared -- that it was few bad apples, that the crimes were limited to the night shift during a few months in 2003, that there was no relationship to interrogations, that no torture occurred at Guantanamo Bay -- turned out to be a flat-out lie. To The Tribune, it’s now tacky to worry about law and limits with such wonderful “concrete commitments” uttered in Senate hearings.

Bush is entitled to his choice of Attorney General. The bigger issue is The Tribune’s abandonment of principle. Now apparently power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely -- except for George W. Bush.

We’re a government of laws, not men -- except when the government is George W. Bush. Then we’ll trust the man, and not worry about the laws, values, or treaties. The question is moot because we’re told Bush personally opposes bad things. Q.E.D.

After all, he’s now the government, and he’s here to help. And being a libertarian apparently now means you want less government -- unless the government is George W. Bush. Law takes a backseat to the personal opinions of one man. We worry only about other future presidents; Bush gets a pass.

What used to be fundamental is now merely moot. See how far the mighty have fallen, in only four short years?

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